Music Reviews
As The Stars

Woods of Desolation As The Stars

(Northern Silence) Rating - 8/10

Those of you readers who have heard As The Stars probably feel you have this review pegged right from the start – that I’ll spend paragraphs upon paragraphs name-dropping Liturgy and Deafheaven and discussing how the album fits in with the ever growing, blogger-approved wave of “post-black metal” acts we in indie-ville just can’t stop drooling over. Well despite the fact that I’m basically doing that right now, let me at least acknowledge why such comparisons should and shouldn’t be made. The black metal project, helmed by Australian guitarist D, has been active for almost a decade now, and it would be unfair to hold an act that has progressed so much over the years to the standards of bands half its age now that their respected style of music is somewhat “in.” But it’s inevitable that, for most people, As The Stars will be their first exposure to WoD and will be hearing it exclusively in a post-Sunbather mindset, and we shouldn’t necessarily ignore that. But what really makes these comparisons as fitting as they are underwhelming is the album itself, which doesn’t measure up to its contemporaries as much as it pushes the entire “post-black metal” narrative forward on its own terms.

A lot of today’s black metal-influenced acts get a lot of flak for even being called “black metal” in the first place, using the genre more as a jumping off point to explore new territory. On the surface, however, As The Stars seems like a much safer bet – the production is dingy and dirt encrusted, the vocals sound as if they were recorded a few yards away, and just look at how kvlt that album cover is (note the barely legible typeface). But despite these surface-level hallmarks, As The Stars probably does more to transcend black metal conventions than most albums in recent memory by actually embracing the conventions of the genre’s arch nemesis: pop. Through its seven tightly packed tracks, As The Stars erupts with stratosphere-scraping riffs and memorable hooks in one of the most focused and structurally compact packages ever released by an artist identified with black metal.

For Woods of Desolation, however, this achievement did not come overnight, nor does it at all feel brought upon by recent trends. Though the project's earlier albums were ultra-grim, blackened voids similar to that of Xasthur, 2011’s Torn Beyond Reason presented a significant leap in scope and song-craft, tightening the screws a bit more and implementing more varied and kinetic riffs to shake up the monotony. But that refinement has only reached its zenith with As The Stars, as the album's winding, radiant riffs bring about new levels of luminescence and triumph that are as far from corpse-paint territory as one could imagine. Sure, there’s plenty of searing distortion and tremolo-picking, but the light vs. dark epic-ness of Unfold and the colossal riffs of And if the Stars Fade Away introduce entirely new color pallets to bring a drama and weight to their sound that few black metal bands effectively master.

But what really helps As The Stars stand out so triumphantly over most of its contemporaries is how unbelievably structured everything feels. It almost seems like sacrilege to not have a track that reaches past the 10-minute mark on a black metal album, as it’s a genre typically rooted in crushing atmosphere above all else. Woods of Desolation, however, seem nary interested in these tropes, and while you won’t find any desolate soundscapes or interludes or 15-minute epics with 5 separate sections, what you will find on As The Stars are seven dynamic, concise, and uniquely shaded songs that are intense, memorable, and dare I say even catchy at times. Only one song exceeds six minutes out of the bunch, and tracks like This Autumn Light and the instrumental Anamnesis are effectively pop songs in the way they’re structured, but are no less bracing and even carry some broad emotional weight in sound alone.

Even amongst today’s most forward-thinking black metal acts, As The Stars is a refreshing anomaly that should be cherished by more than just metal fans. While it is disappointingly short at 34 minutes, it’s incredible to see an artist, especially one who’s been around for a while and evolved, boil down the black metal formula into something so immediate and well-defined while making it just as epic and harrowing as what most artists require double the track length to achieve. It’s tough to say whether Woods of Desolation – who rarely play live shows and are still quite fond of lo-fi fuzz – will have the same impact on non-metal listeners the way groups like Deafheaven have previously, but after almost ten years of relative obscurity, I can’t imagine how such a perfectly timed release such as this wouldn’t deserve it. There have definitely been many bold and exciting extreme metal releases as of recent, but As The Stars is not just daring – it’s incredibly listenable, too.